On nights like these, it's easier to shut out the world than consider where she's going or what she's doing. She doesn't make a habit of drinking too much, not while her one means of fulfillment is dependent on her being alert and wary, and bears the emptiness that never stops tugging at her heart with well-honed practice. She thinks little of love and family and focuses only on her next job.
But tonight's her birthday and it feels almost dishonest to deny that there's a void within her, a severe lack of…something she's been searching for for a lifetime. And when she makes a wish on a cupcake she'd bought herself, her mind wanders to a desire she'd never admit aloud. I don't want to be alone tonight.
The doorbell rings.
She blinks, wondering if the new neighbors had given someone the wrong address again. But no, when she opens the door there's a little boy standing behind it, simmering with contained eagerness and staring at her expectantly. He's wearing an odd little brown cloak that dips past his knees and is baggy over grey boots and a sewn tunic, and she thinks for a moment that he must have come from the theater around the corner before he speaks. "Are you Emma Swan?"
"Yeah. Who are you?"
He squirms, but his eyes are still intent on her, and she gets the distinct impression that he's decided she passes muster before he responds, "My name's Henry. I'm your son."
For a kid who doesn't seem to know how to dress normally, he's pretty confident- or maybe it's her own disorientation at this development that lets him get the better of her. He forces his way into her apartment and her fridge and makes bold threats about how he isn't leaving, and for a moment she can admit that there might be some family resemblance there.
"For a kid who dresses like a reject from Lord of the Rings opening night, you're pretty savvy," she retorts when he insists he'll tell the police she kidnapped him, oh-so-smug.
He wrinkles his brow. "This is all different. I knew about your metal carriages and money, but the clothes are weird here. And the people. A man on the carriage tried to get me to come to his home instead of here."
Something within her twitches uncomfortably at the thought of this child venturing into a strange city, vulnerable and confused and searching for her. "Yeah, strangers here aren't all going to be your friends."
"It was okay." He downs half a cup of orange juice and makes a face. "I showed him my dagger and he went away."
"Is that some kind of euphemism? Because you are much too young for- Kid!" She jumps backward instinctively, staring at what is certainly a dagger that he's suddenly brandishing at her. It's small and sleek with a jeweled handle and a sharp edge, and the Keep away from children! warning label is a given. She'd think.
"The Huntsman gave it to me," he says, tucking it away. He catches her eye where she's still standing, stunned, and lowers his head. "Okay, I took it from his collection when he wasn't looking. But my tutor says that you should never go on a journey unprepared!"
"With a dagger?" She snatches his bag from him, ignoring his "hey!" when she retrieves the weapon from it. "What the hell kind of place did you grow up in?"
He dips his head, sullen. "Lots of kids have weapons. Mother just doesn't let me have any of my own because 'I won't need them.'"
"Damn right you won't. You live on some kind of Comic Con commune?" She watches with vague approval when he disposes of his cup in the garbage, unasked. The kid might wind up being a psychopath, but at least he has decent manners.
"Something like that." He shrugs. "Mother has Internet, though. She doesn't let anyone else have it, but she says it's important that I learn about your world."
"My world?" It had been a closed adoption and for good reason, but when she'd meant to give her baby the chances she'd never had, she hadn't thought he'd be taken in by a medievalist cult. Or wherever Henry had come from. "Listen, kid, I'm gonna take you home."
"Okay," he says agreeably.
"Storybrooke, Maine." He beams at her for a moment under that silly costume, and she shakes her head, amused.
"Seriously?" These people take roleplaying their fantasies to a whole new level, and she feels a sudden pang, thinking about this boy who could have been her son being brainwashed by them. And when she heads for the car, Henry trailing behind, she finally admits to herself that she cares just enough to make sure that Henry is safe, wherever his home is.
Henry is fascinated by the front seat of her car. "You can see straight ahead!" he marvels. "Like sitting in a carriage but so much faster. You must miss seeing all the animals!"
"You sit in carriages a lot?"
He shrugs. "Well, there isn't much land to cover. But Mother and I go for rides in the afternoons while she surveys the kingdom." He frowns, and she can't tear her eyes away from the troubled look on his face. "Not always, though. Not when she-" He breaks off, staring out the window again.
I can't care, Emma reminds herself, but she musses his hair a little with her free hand and says, "Seems like she takes good care of you." He's healthy and bright-eyed and smart enough to make it from his fantasyland commune to Boston, and even if his mother's a little weird, she can't deny that.
Well, that and the fact that his mother had somehow lost track of him for long enough for him to steal weaponry and sneak down to Boston.
Henry's face is dark when she glances to her right again, his hands clutching his satchel as he responds. "No, she doesn't. She's evil."
"Oh-kay." It isn't her business if she'd gotten in the middle of some family spat, but Henry keeps talking, and she can't stop listening. Not my business. Not my business. Not my- "I'm sure your mother loves you very much, no matter what you argued about."Was she always this terrible with kids? Because Henry is shaking now, and his eyes are getting round and watery and she thinks he might cry. Jesus, she has no idea what to do if he cries.
But he doesn't say anything, and she's quiet too, shaking off stirrings of guilt at having cared again for this little boy who seems so bold and terrified all at once and looks at her like she hangs the moon when she's done nothing to deserve it. She focuses on the road again, stealing glances at Henry every few minutes, and she starts to see it- the set of his jaw, so similar to hers. That thick brown hair just a touch shorter than Ne- than his father had worn it. The shape of his eyes, narrowed and stubborn like she's seen in the mirror a thousand times.
She remembers the baby she'd barely held in her arms before giving him away and marvels at the little boy who belongs to someone else, and it's impossible not to get lost in old, bitter memories as they drive along.
Then Henry speaks, and she's jolted into this new reality again. "She can't love anyone," he replies at last. "Even me."
"I'm sure that's not true."
He's staring at her when she looks at him, his gaze knowing and just a little scornful. "Have you ever met an evil queen?"
She laughs aloud, unable to restrain her disbelief this time, and quiets only when Henry's face falls.
"You need to leave your carriage here," Henry announces when they finally near Storybrooke.
"Car," she corrects him, slowing. "Where's your house?" There are no streetlights, and only a faint glow of the moon lights up the town ahead. If she squints ahead, she can just barely make out a thick wood in front of them.
"Past the edge of the forest. But there are no roads for cars in the kingdom."
"Are you kidding me?" But now that she's looking for it, she can see the narrow dirt pathway just past the town line. "This really is a commune, isn't it." Complete with evil queens and carriages and- "A castle?" It's lit from the inside with a glow warmer than your standard electricity, but it's enough to illuminate the tall stone towers high above the trees.
Henry smirks in the darkness. "Told you she's a queen."
"Aren't you cute." She twitches her lips at him, unamused. "Anything else you want to tell me about this town?"
He lifts his head high, turning smartly and leading the way into the woods. "I don't think you're ready for the rest yet. Not until you see it for yourself."
She sees it.
She doesn't quite know if she's ready to believe it just yet, though, not when Henry is leading her through a forest- an enchanted forest, he tells her- and pointing out huts and chattering about the occupants as though this is all normal, as though these people aren't living five miles away from a normally lit highway and a gas station by a Wendy's and how can an entire town be so entrenched in this fairytale fiction?
"No one crosses town lines," Henry explains, which isn't an explanation at all and everything inside her is rebelling at the idea of consigning this boy back to a world so delusional.
The forest parts after a half hour of walking, and Emma has no idea how she's going to find her way back through it, but she's distracted from her thoughts by the castle towering in front of them, separating the woods on either side to create spacious grounds. "We're home," Henry announces, bounding forward to run across the lawn to the front door.
"Did the adoption people even check out where you lived before they gave you away?" Emma mutters, following him into the castle. There's a guard dressed in armor (armor! Like it's the fucking Middle Ages!) at the entrance, but when Henry waves her in, the guard steps back as well. She eyeballs him for a minute, staring at him in a vain attempt to see if he's as aware of how ridiculous this is as she is, but his face remains an impassive mask.
"Emma!" Henry pops out from an upstairs balcony and she hurries up, following him through elaborately decorated halls with suits of armor and embroidered tapestries, past enormous rooms with even higher ceilings, all the way to their right until they reach a set of double doors at the end of the hallway. Whoever had designed this fantasy must have been fabulously wealthy, she's certain, and clearly had too much time on their hands. Evil queen, indeed.
"Where's your mom?" Emma asks, as Henry pushes open the doors and reveals a library straight out of a storybook. They're surrounded by tall shelves, high up the walls and reaching a second-floor balcony. Portraits dot the walls and the windows are stained glass images of kings and queens and animals, and when Emma squints around she can even see tables up the stairs with quills and scrolls on them. The only anachronism is the laptop at an old-fashioned sitting table near them, hooked up to wires that lead directly into a box that is-
She blinks, but the box is still casting off a purple light that dances wildly inside the box, flickering in and out and changing colors as she watches. "Not your grandma's wifi, huh?"
Henry turns to her with a quizzical look. "What's a wifi?"
"Henry!" There's a loud sound like books toppling over, and a bird chirps somewhere near the windows as a woman comes into view. She's fair-skinned and dark-haired and would have been very pretty if not for the worry that darkens her face as she runs to them, throwing her arms around Henry and pulling him tight to her. "I've been worried sick! Where have you been? The guards have been searching the forest for hours, but we feared you-" She stops short, her eyes widening as she catches sight of Emma. "Henry, what have you done?"
"Uh, hi," Emma begins, feeling suddenly silly for worrying about Henry's well being. This woman clearly loves him, and while she might have surrounded herself with the most unimaginable fantasy, there's no doubting the softness in her eyes when she looks at her son.
"I found her!" Henry announces, pulling out of the woman's grasp. "I found my birth mother!"
"And you brought her here?" The woman's voice goes high, almost unnaturally so, and when she looks at Emma again Emma can see something familiar and almost chilling in her eyes. Fear. And she knows instinctively that this woman isn't afraid of her, but for her.
She sticks out her hand, awkward. "I…uh. I'm Emma."
"Emma," the woman echoes, and the fear in her gaze intensifies, coupled with something Emma can't read altogether. "Your name is Emma." The woman glances at Henry for a moment, then back at Emma, and now there's wonder in her voice. "Henry…"
"I'm so sorry for interrupting your family, but…" Emma shrugs a little, nodding to Henry in explanation. And there's something just sweet and welcoming about this woman that she ventures further. "I'd, um…I'd love to hear more about this place. Is this a commercial thing, like a tourist attraction or something?"
"Oh!" The woman shakes herself out of her daze and blinks at her. "I'm not Henry's mother. I'm his tutor." She takes Emma's hand with the tip of hers, resting her fingers lightly on Emma's palm as she curtsies. "My name is Snow."
"Snow. As in…Snow White?" Emma guesses. A castle full of fairytale characters? Someone must be making money off this, and an artificial fairytale tourist trap is a relief compared to the cult theory. Henry's just a kid, of course he'd believe it's all real, but it's something he'll grow out of in time.
But there's nothing artificial about the way that Snow jerks. "Then you know me!" she exclaims, rising again. "You know about the curse!"
"Curse?" Emma repeats.
"You're Emma!" Snow says, her eyes shining. "And you know about the curse!"
And then this stranger is hugging her like she'd been hugging Henry moments before as though vacuum-welded to her, and Emma can't breathe for a minute before she finally manages, "Not that I have a problem with unconditional affection from strangers or anything, but what curse? What are you talking about?"
Snow lets go almost reluctantly, her eyes tracing Emma's face as she does, and when Henry finally says, "She doesn't know," the other woman releases her fully.
"I see," she murmurs, stepping back. Her eyes widen again. "But you can't be here! Henry, what were you thinking, bringing her here? If the queen finds out, she'll-"
"Really, Snow, what did you think I'd do?" a voice made of steel drawls from the doorway, and before Emma can turn around, she's being thrown through the air by a freak windstorm that comes from nowhere, pinning both her and Snow against the closest wall of books. "You lose my son, and now you're entertaining outsiders? Don't we all know how this ends?"
She steps forward, and there's no doubt in Emma's mind, even while held immobile by this unnatural wind, that she's met Henry's evil queen at last. "I keep you alive so that you may know suffering as I have," the queen says, her voice silky with quiet rage. "But there are better, more…creative ways to cause you pain." She drags out each word, and when Emma can tear her eyes away from her, she sees that Snow is regarding the queen with fear and…compassion.
The queen's eyes narrow, and Emma is seized with the insane desire to deflect her fury from the far-too-kind woman beside her. "Hey. Hey!"
The queen turns, an eyebrow raised in delicate disbelief that teeters somewhere on the edge of utter fury. "She didn't do anything," Emma feels obliged to respond, straining to get the words out while the impossible pressure still holds her to the wall. "I came here with-" She reconsiders, catching sight of Henry's frightened, defiant face. "I came here on my own."
"That is impossible." The queen abruptly shifts direction to saunter over to Emma, eyes glittering against another perfectly featured face. She stands in front of Emma, so close that Emma can feel her warm breath ghosting over her face. "What are you here to find, I wonder? Who sent you? That bastard Rumpelstiltskin?"
"The guy with the name?" Emma says dumbly. This is ridiculous. This whole town is ridiculous, but she's beginning to admit to herself that this isn't a freak wind holding her in place, and this woman has every bit the presence of an evil queen. "He's real too?"
"Oh, don't act the fool," the queen purrs. "It's so very…unbecoming." She reaches out to touch Emma's face, tracing her cheekbone down along the line of her jaw, and Emma's skin tingles with every caress as though seared by living flames. "It's no use, whatever your motives here. You will be quite the addition to my hall." She waves her hand and the pressure is gone, and Emma is falling forward and slamming into the queen's outstretched palm.
The queen draws her other hand back, two fingers outstretched with purpose Emma can't comprehend, and she brings them forward just as Henry shouts, "Mother, no!"
And just like that, the hand is stilled, and Emma draws her knees up to attack the other woman, seething at the way she'd gotten the better of her so easily. But when Emma kicks upward, the queen is already walking away, hurrying toward Henry with renewed purpose. And when she wraps him in a hug as tight as the one Snow had given him, Emma can only stare. "Where have you been?" she demands, pulling away from him. It's harsher than Snow's words, and there's a wild fear there in the catch of her voice, imperious as it's meant to be.
"I found Emma," Henry says, and he isn't frightened anymore. He's staring at his mother, stubborn and unyielding, and Emma is suddenly very afraid of what the queen might do to him if he says anything else. "She's my mother."
The queen turns back to Emma, her face thunderous. "You are the woman who gave birth to Henry?"
Some deep-seated sense of self-preservation reacts to that, and Emma can suddenly force a smile onto her face and form normal words again. "Henry managed to hunt me down in Boston. I was just giving him a ride home, but I'll be heading back now."
She sees his face fall but refuses to assure him that she isn't going anywhere, that she won't leave this town until she can ensure Henry's safety- with or without this terrifying mother of his. There are things he's better off not knowing, especially while he's still a slave to the whims of a mercurial queen.
"I'm afraid that's impossible," the queen retorts. "Your vehicle has been removed from the kingdom's entrance. No one leaves to the world outside, not after seeing what is here. You will grace my hall with your presence."
"No!" Henry almost shouts, and then he's throwing himself forward and wrapping himself around Emma, impotent little arms tight around her as he buries his face in her stomach. She touches his hair with the tips of her fingers, wondering at the way that his hug can make her hurt more than the queen's threats do. "No, Mother, please don't do this! Please don't take her away!"
And Snow speaks for the first time since the queen had threatened her, soft and persuasive. "Regina, he'll never forgive you." Emma glances at her, the woman she'd only known of from storybooks as a gentle princess, never a servant in the evil queen's palace with eyes steely and determined to save a woman she barely knows.
The queen- Regina- stalks over to Snow and slaps her once, leaving pale skin red where her hand had hit. "Very well," she says, and she doesn't look at either Henry or Emma as she speaks. "The Huntsman will escort you at all times. You will not leave the castle grounds. You will not speak to Henry." Henry's mouth opens in protest, but Emma shakes her head once before he can provoke his mother. His mouth closes. "If you do either, you will be thrown into the cell where you belong." She walks past Emma, a cold smile crossing her face. "I suspect our…problem will resolve itself soon enough."
The words are a threat but the tone is a promise, and she tenses against Henry's arms, watching the satiny red material of the queen's dress hug her body as she saunters out. "Henry, you're to go to your room immediately. You will meet me in the gardens at dawn to discuss your punishment."
"Yes, Mother," Henry mumbles, letting go of Emma and tossing her one final look before he scurries out of the room, Regina's hand settling on his shoulder and clenching as they walk.
And when they're gone, Snow murmurs the one thing on Emma's mind as well. "She surrendered too quickly."
This is far from over.
Thanks go to Liz for looking over this chapter and talking out this story with me in the first place. I'm probably going to update this fic weekly until it's finished, when possible. This is a new fandom for me and I'm very out of my comfort zone, so I'd appreciate any feedback y'all can give me!